I had plans for a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras this year. I wasn’t going to be in New Orleans but here, in London, my party skirt, the purple and green beads that stay in a special drawer for the rest of the year, and the glitter hairspray were all coming out.
I was going to a much-loved event that I’ve been to many times before, where there would be bands, banners and a parade. There would be dear friends, and we would have had drinks made out of things like pistachio vodka and artichoke liqueur, danced, and maybe even stayed out all night.
However, this didn’t happen. Thanks to a complicated set of circumstances, I had an UK-style Mardi Gras instead – or, as we Brits would say, Pancake Day. Just as I did at this time of year when I was a child, I spent the evening sitting round a kitchen table, mostly waiting for it to be my turn to eat.
It’s in the nature of Pancake Day that you spend a lot of time waiting – and watching others eat. We make pancakes in our own way in the UK – much thinner than US ones, a little thicker than French crepes – and they can only be cooked one at a time. And of course it’s a sin not to consume them when they’re hot.
But it’s worth the wait, which is also the beauty of the the occasion. Because the meal is drawn out, there’s time to talk and relax, and get everyone to share the cooking, in a way that there usually isn’t on your average weekday evening. I remember my childhood Pancake Days always seemed like special occasions. From ingredients that are always in your fridge (which is just as well as sometimes my mother would forget what the day was), a feast day-worthy supper would be conjured.
That was also the case at my Mardi Gras meal this year. Parma ham and goats’ cheese replaced cheddar and frozen spinach as toppings. We drank prosecco rather than orange squash. But the evening still saw plenty of plates doused with the lemon juice and caster sugar combo that never goes out of fashion, and the joy of creating something magical from the simplest of components was just the same.
Eating this meal with friends turned out to give me the same freedom to let go of troubles momentarily that the maddest night out can provide. And this is what Mardi Gras and Pancake Day are all about. How to enjoy life fully, without avoiding our responsibilities or denying the realities of the difficult times that we all go through (which will be waiting for us when Lent begins). In his book Why New Orleans Matters, Tom Piazza says that an ability to, “Go with what is. Use what happens” is “the spirit of Mardi Gras itself”.
London’s quirky storecupboard version of the festival might not quite match that of New Orleans for style and panache, but I’ll now always be just as happy to take it.